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Foreign Minister discusses the situation in Yugoslavia, Khmer Rouge non-cooperation in the Cambodian peace process, the situation in Thailand and the Middle East; refuses to publicly support any particular candidate for the ALP presidency

PETER THOMPSON: In our Canberra studio, this morning, is the Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans. Senator Evans joins us in the wake of the United Nations Security Council vote to send an additional one thousand troops to what was Yugoslavia, to re-open Sarajevo Airport. The vote came as the citizens of the besieged Bosnian capital continue to suffer life-threatening food and medical shortages as the city is pulverised by forces which are widely regarded as being backed by Serbia.

Closer to home, in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge is threatening the UN peace plan which is being put into action in that country. The Khmer Rouge claims that not all of Vietnam's troops have left the country and is threatening to stop the process which is attempting to return Cambodia to some kind of normality.

Canberra wants China to use its influence with the Khmer Rouge and break this latest impasse. To talk to Senator Evans, our chief political correspondent, Maxine McKew.

MAXINE McKEW: Senator, considering the scale of the carnage in Bosnia, is the UN and the West, generally, still being too cautious about intervention?

GARETH EVANS: I think there are obviously very severe constraints on a full-scale peace enforcement exercise being mounted. The quagmire factor is really something that's weighing very heavily on European and UN decision-makers. It's not an easy military exercise to get started or to finish, and for those reasons, the emphasis has remained on a traditional peacekeeping operation, contingent upon particular agreement before it can be implemented, and that's what's proposed, of course, for the Sarajevo Airport, at the moment.

MAXINE McKEW: When you say quagmire, are you referring to the difficulty of getting into a situation where political allegiances are just so difficult to work out?

GARETH EVANS: Well, there's no single, physical, military front. There's multiple fronts, depending on who's fighting whom at any given time, and it can't be assumed that the conflict will remain centred as it is at the moment in Bosnia-Herzegovina, or, indeed, in Sarajevo. The difficulty is that the Yugoslavian conflict has been sprawling in all directions ever since it started. Militarily, the locus of the action has shifted from place to place. At the moment, it's absolutely crucial that something be done fast to relieve a disastrous, appalling situation in Sarajevo. The whole international community wants to do that, but to put a thousand troops in there, only to be shelled from positions on the hills around, is not going to solve anything, and the capacity of the UN to engage in full-scale military exercise to remove that particular source of attack is, obviously, not going to be easy to mount, for all the reasons I've indicated.

MAXINE McKEW: Bosnia's President, though, is calling for an American bombing attack on Serbian gun positions. Is that wide of the mark?

GARETH EVANS: Well, I'm sure the Americans are not going to act unilaterally. They are, however - as I know from recent talks I've had with Jim Baker in Lisbon, a couple of weeks ago - desperately concerned about the situation and very keen to continue exploring, with the rest of the UN countries, ways of responding if the situation continues to plunge downward into this abyss.

MAXINE McKEW: Was recognition of states like Croatia and Serbia granted a bit too quickly, do you think, before ethnic borders were sorted out?

GARETH EVANS: I think there will be a long argument about that. Certainly, Australia was among those countries urging caution in that respect. Whether the recognition made the situation any worse is one thing. Certainly, it's obvious that it didn't make it any better.

MAXINE McKEW: Isn't the West potentially faced with an even bigger problem - you know, an ambitious, greater Serbia that could perhaps, eventually, involve countries like Macedonia?

GARETH EVANS: Well, certainly that's one part of the equation, but I don't think we should place all the focus for political and territorial ambition on Serbia. That has been an endemic problem with some of the other former Yugoslavian Republics as well, and simply because that problem is not so publicly visible, at the moment, doesn't mean it's completely gone away.

MAXINE McKEW: Senator, moving to our own region, would you agree that the Cambodia peace process has never looked more vulnerable?

GARETH EVANS: Certainly, I think what we're confronting, at the moment, is the potential for a major stumble, whereas in the last few weeks when issues have been raised, from time to time, about ceasefire breaches and so on, that's really been in the realm of minor hiccups. The problem we have, at the moment, is that the Khmer Rouge is saying they're simply not going to co-operate in the start-up of the major demobilisation exercise which is due to begin in just three days time. It says the reason for that is that it's not yet persuaded that all Vietnamese forces have left. Now, whether that's a real objection which is capable of being met by rational, logistic responses, or whether it's simply a blind for a more generalised lack of co-operation, is something that remains to be seen.

MAXINE McKEW: It's a bit more of a stumble, though, isn't it? I mean, the Khmer Rouge apparently is now laying down fresh mines along the Thai border.

GARETH EVANS: Well, that's true. I'd put that in the realm of the minor hiccups. The main problem is the lack of co-operation with this crucial next phase of the whole UNTAC strategy, and, in particular, their unwillingness to fully accede to ceasefire ground rules and to allow unrestricted access by the UNTAC forces into Khmer Rouge controlled areas. Now, this is something that, obviously, all the countries with an interest in this are acutely concerned about. A lot of discussions are going on, at the moment. The Secretary-General's representative has reported to him, in the last couple of days, discussions are proceeding in New York. We've been very active, diplomatically, with China and Thailand, the most important neighbouring players, in this respect, and with the most influence, I guess, over the Khmer Rouge, and everyone is just working very hard, at the moment, to avert a major crisis.

MAXINE McKEW: Yes. At what point do we have to rethink our involvement? After all, the Prime Minister did say, you know, if we conclude there is no longer a peace to keep, the Australian and other UN forces will have to be withdrawn. Aren't we dangerously close to that point?

GARETH EVANS: Well, I think it's far too premature to make any of that kind of assessment at this stage. We'll be making a judgment along with the UN and the rest of the international community, all of whom share our very strong commitment to making this process work, and none of whom want to declare it ill, prematurely. Now, there is a stumble looming, at the moment. We hope that it can be avoided. We'll know, when the process is broken down. It's far too early to say that, yet.

MAXINE McKEW: And Senator, you mentioned Thailand. Since the violence a few weeks back, the military party still seem to be a long way away from evolving the sort of political process that will satisfy the pro-democracy forces.

GARETH EVANS: Well, there's an active search for political compromise on, at the moment. There's an active attempt being made to account, more precisely, for the number of deaths and who is responsible for them. It's a process that has, by no means, come to a conclusion, at the moment. Again, I think it would be premature to make judgments about it. We have, in Thailand, a society that's poised uneasily between a modern democracy and a really rather old-fashioned military, authoritarian regime. The last 10 or 15 years have seen steady progress towards democracy and, clearly, a very major commitment to that emerging, so far as the great mass of the Thai people are concerned. What happened a few weeks ago was quite disastrous, but I think people are now groping for a way out of that and to implement constitutional arrangements that really will stick, in the future and put the military back in its place.

MAXINE McKEW: One other point on quite a different matter. The former head of Foreign Affairs, Dick Woolcott, said yesterday that if Bob Hawke had still been Prime Minister, you wouldn't have made the statements you made about the Palestinians when you were in the Middle East, recently.

GARETH EVANS: I think that underestimates Bob Hawke's own personal view which I strongly share, that every country in the Middle East has a real responsibility, now, to move the peace process forward, and that it's very much in Israel's own interests - in the short as well as medium and long term - to participate actively and constructively in that process. Beyond that, I don't think it's helpful for me to comment any further.

MAXINE McKEW: You don't think your comments could have been a bit more temperate?

GARETH EVANS: Well, I'd prefer to make a more major statement about this at some more appropriate time than in the immediate lead-up to the Israeli elections. What's important is that, certainly, the surrounding Arab countries and the Palestinians maintain the pattern of moderation and flexibility they've tended to show over the last 12 months, and that the Israelis, themselves, with the election behind them, make a new, concerted effort to participate actively in the negotiation process, and, more particularly, remove some of those obvious obstacles to the peace process at the moment, particularly settlement building.

MAXINE McKEW: And finally, Senator, on an internal matter: as a member of Labor's national executive, will you be supporting Barry Jones as the next president?

GARETH EVANS: I think it would be very helpful for the party, in its present condition, if we had a president who was positive, attractive and non-divisive in his public presentation.

MAXINE McKEW: Does that sum up Barry Jones?

GARETH EVANS: No. Who that person should be is obviously best left to internal party discussion and I don't propose to contribute any further to that, and I think it would be much to be valued if everyone else in the party would observe that same stricture, at this stage.

MAXINE McKEW: All right. On that point, Senator, we'll say thank you very much. GARETH EVANS: Thank you, Maxine.

PETER THOMPSON: The Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, in Canberra with Maxine McKew.